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Thais need not stay divided after election

Thailand’s parliamentary election on Sunday is looking like a continuance of unfinished business. This would be the least helpful scenario for a governance process already muddied in recent elections by military interventions and constitutional tinkering. The opposition Puea Thai party, which leads narrowly in the polls, will relish victory as vindication for its absent putative leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister Yingluck is carrying the banner. Thaksin was deposed in a coup in 2006 and two associates who became prime minister after him were removed in court challenges. He also has a prison sentence for a graft conviction hanging over him.

For the Democratic Party incumbent, Abhisit Vejjajiva, victory will formalize a mandate many Thais regard as not quite legitimate, as it had been conferred not in an election but by parliamentary vote just under three years ago. He nursed the economy back from a contraction in 2009 to 8 percent growth last year. He feels he has done enough to win the voters’ approval, the better to ward off pressure by some interfering generals and their yellow-shirt minions in the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

But the intentions of the military are decisive in post-election situations. It has been so ever since Thaksin burst on the scene. The army has said it will respect the people’s choice. But a Puea Thai win may prove unacceptable if it is accompanied by a general amnesty for dissidents, which the party suggests it would declare. It should think hard. Abhisit protests that this would amount to a whitewash for Thaksin and others convicted of corruption. The probability of the army stepping in again would then be great.

Thailand need not go down this old path of coups and constitutional blocking moves. The Democrats have been inclusive in governance and moderate in ideology. This is the legacy of its last prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, who won office without aristocratic or military blessings. A decade later, the party has managed, though with some difficulty, to keep these power centres at arm’s length. Crucially, there are similarities in social and economic policies that unite Puea Thai and the Democrats. Both emphasize a duty to close the divide between urban and rural areas. Both wish to ‘detoxify’ the nation’s politics, a word Abhisit chose to describe putting an end to old attitudes that divide. Whichever party wins on Sunday, the defeated side should rise above its disappointment to support the new government in seeking national reconciliation. This would deny meddling generals and the Bangkok chattering classes an excuse to second-guess the people.

(Editorial, The Straits Times)

(Asia News Network)
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